Perhaps the only more ubiquitous aspiration than the “American dream” in our country’s cultural narrative is a desire to make the world a better place. For many of us, this aspiration evolves into an amorphous echo of our childhood optimism, but for those select few who are driven by vision and who thrive on results, changing the world can become a real possibility.
For Dr. Rajiv Shah, a second-generation Indian American and the 13th president of The Rockefeller Foundation, those two dreams have worked in tandem to develop his dynamic approach for achieving global change through science, technology, imagination, and philanthropy.
An Early Understanding of Impact
Shah refers back to his upbringing in Detroit, saying he and his sister “grew up without want for anything,” yet he is keenly aware of the exceptional efforts made to provide such a comfortable life. “My parents are immigrants from India,” says Shah, noting that his father’s family had to make significant sacrifices to enable him to come to the United States. “My grandfather emptied his retirement account to buy a one-way ticket for my father. It was a time when, if you wanted the absolute best opportunity for your family and believed in the values of hard work and commitment to each other, you’d send your kid to America. It was the American dream.”
He recalls his first visit to India at age 9—a young boy enthusiastically consuming the stimuli of a new country. Though he spent much of that time with his mother’s family in their comparatively plush Mumbai flat, he most clearly remembers the day his uncle took him to one of the slums to see the way many people in India live. The sights, sounds, and smells of that day lingered; it was the first time he’d seen deprivation and poverty mingled with playing and laughter. “When we got home to Detroit, I noticed the wide roads, clean lawns, cut grass—and realized how different the rest of the world is than what we are exposed to.”
Crash Course in Creating Change
Inspired by his parents’ grit, commitment, and resilience, Shah went on to build a résumé that any world leader would be proud to have accumulated, and he did so at an astonishing rate. A distinguished student of science, health, and economics, he launched his first nonprofit in medical school, and sparked his political career soon after during the Gore presidential campaign. When he was 28, Shah began working for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—an active partnership he still relishes today—before taking on leadership roles in the Obama Administration as chief scientist for the USDA and head of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Five days into his role at USAID, the devastating 2010 earthquake rocked Haiti, and Shah received a call from President Obama notifying him that he was in charge of the crisis response. Shah distinctly recalls how the President saw it as a crucial moment for showing the world who we are. “He wanted a coordinated, effective, results-oriented approach, and that’s exactly what we did,” says Shah. “He put the entire resources of the United States military under our guidance to help support the effort. That was a tremendous moment, when the very best of our people came together and made a huge difference in saving lives. It was pretty extraordinary to see the power of our country when deployed for good.”
In 2015, Shah left USAID to launch Latitude Capital, a private equity firm focused on energy and infrastructure in developing countries. This pivoted him perfectly into his current undertaking: President of The Rockefeller Foundation and steward to its 105-year-old gold standard of “scientific philanthropy.” The Foundation has granted more than $18B in funding.
When asked what first led him to the foundation, he proudly recounts the organization’s many immense past achievements—from inventing a vaccine to combat yellow fever to powering the Green Revolution across Asia and Latin America. “It saved almost a billion people from hunger and starvation over a few decades,” says Shah. “To have that kind of impact by being an optimist, by investing in science, technology, and data, by leveraging the power of those tools to reach even the most vulnerable people on the planet—that is what drew me here.”
He’s most excited to reimagine what is still possible through the legacy of John D. Rockefeller’s belief that radical optimism and the power of science could lift up the lives of people around the world. With a bullish focus on being data-driven, results-oriented, and science-based, he and his team drew on tactics from the organization’s inception to debate what areas of human well-being are most amenable to that great “lifting up.”
“We determined that what the world needs, and what we can offer, are efforts to help children and families improve their access to health, food, power, and jobs,” says Shah. “The end result, we really do believe, will be helping to end poverty around the world and helping hundreds of millions more families experience the dignity of access to those four elements of a successful life.”
Combining his public-office expertise with his private-sector creativity, Shah is confident as he leads the foundation on its mission of catalyzing positive change and revolutionizing technological and natural resources to aid in that effort. “I was drawn by the chance to be a part of demonstrating to the world that America can lead with its values, and when it does, it can lift people up, create partnerships, improve our own security and stability, and showcase what’s so great about this country,” he says. “I’d like for us to become the best platform for bringing together data, analytics, science, and technology to improve the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people.”
The Company He Keeps
Having been personally chosen for his roles by the likes of Hillary Clinton, Bill Gates, and Barack Obama—who once kicked off a National Security Council meeting by singing “Happy Birthday” to Shah—it would be natural to assume these mentors would top the list of his heroes. But Shah considers his parents his greatest influence. “They worked exceptionally hard all the time,” he says. “They just wanted their kids to have great opportunities, and they had to sacrifice to make that happen.”
Still, he easily lauds leaders and mentors-turned-friends whom he’s had the opportunity to work alongside. “I learned so much from each of them,” he says. “I learned from Hillary Clinton how to be tough and recognize that you sometimes just have to weather a storm in order to help others and achieve your goals.” After working closely with Bill Gates, Shah says he learned “how to envision the kind of world we want to invent, and make it happen through a hyper-focused, results-oriented approach.” And about former President Obama, he muses, “At the end of the day, you remember the elements of friendship. His ability, however, to be clear about why we did things—to set priorities, to take the long view, and to stay very calm and focused on data and science—is something I both respect and try to emulate.”